Name: Adi Wyner
Tell me about the person who died:
I can recite my father's phone number at work, even today, nearly 20 years after he died: 582-2916. He was almost always in his office when I or my sisters called and he always answered with a cheery, "Wyner speaking!" I cannot recall a time when he was not delighted to talk to us. He was a famous mathematician working at Bell Laboratories at the height of its renown, and was devoted to his work. One of my dad’s colleagues recently told me that, as committed as my father was to Information Theory and the Mathematics of Communications, he nevertheless felt it was only his hobby. His real life's work was his family: his wife, his kids, his parents, and his sister. We all knew it too.
My father was always there. He made it to every ball game and every swimming meet (I think he came to every practice too). He travelled a little for work, but often, the family would accompany him to conferences around the world. Since I was the only boy among three sisters, I was always with my dad. On trips, that meant I would lug the suitcases and stay with him when he dropped off my mother and sisters while we found parking or dealt with a technical issue. At home, I was his right-hand man in every activity, whether that was fixing toilets, shoveling the snow, or going to the barbershop for a trim (“A little off the top and just above the ears”). We attended synagogue (which we called shul) every Shabbat. The walk there and back was his favorite part since it promised 25 minutes of uninterrupted time to talk with his children. I sat next to him in shul every week. He wasn’t very spiritual and I don’t think he ever opened the siddur (prayer book). But he loved to sing and he knew all of the melodies by heart. We were always the last to leave for home since he loved lingering after services, talking to his friends.
My father was a tremendous intellectual. He read and worked constantly, but casually. He would sit at night in one corner of the big couch in our living room with either a book (always non-fiction) or a pad of paper where he would scribble equations and prove theorems. Opera was almost always playing in the background, which would leave me with a terrible headache. Although he was a slow starter academically and he did not distinguish himself in high school, my dad was able to transfer to Columbia College after two years at Queens College, where he finished his B.S., M.S., and Ph.D. in nearly consecutive years. He finished his Ph.D. at age 23, and he looked even younger. He was offered a faculty position at Columbia, which he accepted, but soon after, he was recruited to Bell Labs where he worked for the rest of his life. When I was in college at Yale, he would come to the Columbia football games up in New Haven. We never really paid much attention to the game; instead, we would work on math problems on the backs of napkins while seated in the stands.
What was your experience of grief before and after your loss?
My father died of breast cancer. Yes, that’s right; about 2-3% of all cases are men. I used to avoid telling people he had breast cancer since it is so strongly associated with women. I think he was 47 years old when the tumor appeared close to the surface, a growth near the areola. He ignored it for many months, not making the connection. I remember seeing it while I was home from college. I didn’t think anything of it really. He was almost never sick and it took some convincing on the part of my mother to get him to the doctor. The cancer had spread to a few lymph nodes, which were removed with fairly radical surgery that left him somewhat disfigured. The chemotherapy was difficult and he was weakened. He had been in terrific physical condition right before his diagnosis, having taken up running 6 years earlier. After finding out that he had cancer, he never attempted to get back into serious shape again. The cancer had wounded him terribly, physically of course, but mentally too. A sadness developed in him that was never there before.
He had about 5 years of remission. During that time, he visited me at Stanford quite regularly; I don’t believe I ever went longer than a month or two without seeing him. Technically, he had colleagues at Stanford that he formally visited, but he was really there to see me. On one of those visits he complained of back pain. I sensed that he already knew the cancer had returned. He was treated with radiation and a new hormone therapy, Tamoxofin (a treatment which today is prescribed prophylactically to great success), but the cancer had already spread to his bones. Still, his cancer was “indolent” and we had hope, if not for a recovery, then at least for a long life. The years passed. I got married. My son was born. My dad made many more trips out to California. He completed research that is among his most famous work. He was awarded patents that are still used in Qualcomm’s mobile technology. Life moved on.
I knew something was different about my father the summer my first daughter was born. My whole family, as usual, came to celebrate her birth. I spent many hours with him on that visit. By that time, I was already following in his footsteps—we had completed one joint mathematics paper together and were working on a second. We didn’t talk too much about the bigger issues such as health and “feelings”; my dad was a classic man of the 1950’s in that respect, but I could sense there was something bothering him. He was weak and tired. I didn’t want to notice. I looked instead at all the evidence of vitality that was still present. Those talks were to be the last we ever had.
Less than a month later, the cancer, which had spread to his liver, caused enough impairment to interfere with his brain. He could no longer speak coherently. I rushed from San Francisco to his bedside in NJ. This brought back memories of when I was 12 and I went with my father to visit my grandfather, who was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. My father cried that day because his father did not know who he was. On that day, in September of 1997, my father could no longer talk and I am not sure he knew that I was there. What my father experienced with his father, I was now experiencing with my father. I cried for the first time.
Shortly thereafter, my dad was moved to hospice and we were told that he had at least a few weeks, if not months, to live. So I flew back to San Francisco to prepare for the High Holiday services at my synagogue, where I served as part-time cantor. When I learned that my dad’s condition had worsened, I was torn apart, trying to decide whether to fly home before or after Rosh Hashanah services. That Shabbat, I saw the parents of one of my young students who had been killed weeks earlier in a car crash. The minute they saw me, they recognized the shadow of death hanging on me. I had changed permanently. Until then, I had never known a moment of serious sorrow. That evening, during the recitation of the annual S’lichot services (when the congregation gathers to ask for forgiveness in the face of God’s judgment), I completely collapsed in tears. I have been blessed with a powerful voice, but that night, my voice could not rise above a whisper. My father died the next night.
For months after he died, my father appeared every time I closed my eyes. He would come and sit with me while I slept, although I don’t remember what he said or even if he spoke at all. His presence was immensely comforting. He appears in my dreams only very rarely now, but I think about him often.
If you had to describe your grief as a literal landscape, what would it look like and feel like at different points since your loss?
My grief was strongest in the weeks before he died. It felt like a raging sandstorm without calm, rest, or sleep. It was an awful place since you couldn’t really see and didn’t know where to turn. Now, I don’t feel any deep sadness, anxiety, or distress, so you could say that the storm has wound down to a gentle summer rain shower filled with fog and mist.
Tell me about an object that reminds you of the person who died, and why?
My father talked frequently of his childhood in the Bronx. My grandparents still lived in his childhood home and we would visit there often. My grandfather loved the game of baseball and the Yankees in particular, and my father did as well. My Uncle Herman was an executive with a sporting goods company and was able to take my father to countless Yankee games during the great seasons of the late 1940’s and 1950’s. I was absurdly envious. My father gave me two baseballs signed by the entire Yankee team, one from 1947, and the other from maybe 10 years later. They prominently feature the signatures of Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, and Yogi Berra (who signed his name as Larry Berra in 1947). The baseballs represent my connection as a child to my father’s own childhood. Unlike most other sports, baseball is still played more or less the same today as it was then, by players who look more or less the same way now as they looked then, in stadiums and uniforms that are still more or less the same. The baseballs are paths across time; they will always preserve the connection I have to my father and that he had to his father. Judaism does that too. I guess I have two religions; thank God, they are not incompatible.
How did the people in your life support you in your grief? What was helpful? What was frustrating?
We had a wonderful, supportive Jewish community in San Francisco. Our friends brought meals for a month, which is the tradition in the observant Jewish world. The rabbi I worked with was exceptionally good at helping the living confront and understand death and his words were comforting. My wife, who later became a rabbi, was of course especially helpful. Observant Jews are required to say a memorial prayer (Mourner’s Kaddish) for their immediate relatives after they die. It cannot be said alone; it requires at least 10 adults, a minyan. So I went to daven (pray) with a minyan every morning and most evenings so that I could say Kaddish for my father. On Wednesdays, a group of my guy friends would join me at the minyan and we would all go afterwards to a local diner for 2 eggs, two pancakes, and 2 pieces of toast for $2.99. There is no minyan like the one in Congregation Beth Sholom in San Francisco. I have been back a few times over the years and it still has the same feeling.
Was there anything about your cultural or religious background that affected the grieving process for you?
My entire process was shaped by Judaism’s halacha (a Hebrew word that means “the way”). It is the set of instructions for following the traditional Jewish path. Before the funeral, I ripped my shirt as commanded: not a symbolic ribbon, but a real rip down a nice collared shirt. Jews “sit” in their homes for seven days after the death of a family member, which can be a powerful beginning to the grieving process. This is called shiva, which means “7,” referring to the seven days of intense mourning when you don’t leave your house, wear shoes, or take care of your personal appearance. We observed shiva, which ended after only one day, because my father died right before Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. Our family rabbi came and met us at my mother’s house. He walked us around the block, symbolizing the need to curtail the period of our most intense grief in preparation for celebrating our most important community holiday. Jews do not grieve alone, nor are they permitted to grieve too much. Moderation is the rule, in celebration and in sadness. Returning to the synagogue where my dad had so many friends who loved him was a tremendous comfort.
The text of the Mourner’s Kaddish is a short two paragraphs that proclaim God’s holiness and greatness. Its literal meaning is not that important. It doesn’t refer to the dead in any way. It is recited as an acceptance of God’s final judgment. In Judaism, it is acknowledged and accepted that “God has given and God has taken.” The obligation to say Kaddish every day for 11 months is traditionally observed by the sons and I took this obligation very seriously. I would leave the house before anyone was awake. When I was in mourning for my father, saying Kaddish every day allowed me to confront my grief and his loss without thinking. You just did it.
We moved to Philadelphia when I was still in mourning. I was still saying Kaddish, so I found two minyanim in the city (an Orthodox and a Conservative minyan) and just like that, I had a community. Instantly.
How did your loss and your grief change you?
Until my father died, I was unable to speak to anyone about their loss, grief, or sadness; the experience was just too foreign. But with the loss of my father, I too suffered from a broken heart and could now relate to others’ grief. When I was grieving and in the most pain, I discovered that the best way to talk to me was normally. So, ever since, I have no trouble talking or visiting with people in pain; I just talk to them normally.
Did anything surprise you about your experience with grief?
I was surprised at how I felt on the very last day that I said Kaddish for my father. I was attending a conference in Boston so I went with my sister to a shul near her house every morning and evening. It is the tradition that mourners lead the service if they are capable. When you do something over and over again, you acclimate yourself and you feel less. But during the recitation of my last Kaddish, I broke down and sobbed just as I had on the night of S’lichot almost one year earlier.
Adi Wyner is a Professor of Statistics at the Wharton School of Business. His research areas and professional interests include sports analytics, machine learning, and statistical models. He is also a professionally trained opera singer and cantor. Adi is married to Rabbi Lisa Malik and is the proud father of three children: Ariel (age 20), Eva (age 19), and Rivkah (age 14).
This post is part of Grief Landscapes, an evolving art project documenting the unique terrain of people’s grief. Participants share an experience with bereavement, and I photograph an object that evokes the person who died, transforming it into an abstract landscape inspired by the story.